Windfarms are controversial for their impact on land, and as energy developers move them offshore, they also bring problems for the marine ecosystem.
In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use and the negative effects of climate change, wind energy has become one of the most important sources of electricity.
Many environmental benefits are associated with wind energy, including the reduction of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants as well as the use of little or no water in the process of generating electricity.
Places like Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania are great candidates for development, as the offshore wind conditions are right.
But like all energy sources, wind energy can negatively affect wildlife. Although there is still uncertainty about these impacts, nearly 25 years of focused research has improved our understanding of them.
One of these impacts is the displacement of animals due to increased noise and vessel traffic. There are studies suggesting some birds and marine mammals are displaced from offshore wind projects in Europe, but substantial uncertainty surrounds the impact.
While it is believed bird collisions with offshore turbines are less common than at terrestrial facilities (new research shows that some seabirds are deliberately avoiding wind turbine rotor blades offshore) there are no tools available to measure fatalities associated with offshore wind farms.
These are just some of the potential risks to marine life that need to be adequately mitigated, says a report in Oil Gas and Energy Law.
By mapping out the best sites for generating the most electricity with the least environmental impact, the authors hope that Australia will consider how infrastructure and ecosystems can co-locate.
The Global Wind Energy Council has called for “clear, transparent, and simplified leasing and permitting processes” in Australia, especially since it estimates a massive 4,963 gigawatts of offshore wind potential for our oceanic country.
As part of the federal government’s $20 billion Rewiring the Nation Plan, it’s pledged $1.5 billion to speed up the development of offshore wind farms and renewable energy zones in Victoria, alongside funding for the Marinus link (an electricity cable connecting Tasmania and Victoria).
Running exclusively on renewables is 100% possible in terms of the resources available – Australia has huge renewable energy potential across both solar and wind, says offshore energy specialist Tamara Al-Hashimi, RPS Technical Director of Marine Science and Offshore Approvals.
“At the moment, our biggest challenge is infrastructure. We simply don’t have the physical assets we need to transition to wind and solar power alone,” Al-Hashimi says.
“This gap includes both generation infrastructure – wind farms and solar arrays – and the supporting infrastructure we need to build these assets, or to distribute and store the power from them.
“To make renewables work, Australia needs to invest in ports, transmission infrastructure upgrades, and battery or other storage solutions.”
The Australian Government does not currently have a target for offshore wind energy. Any and all offshore wind projects in Australia require several important assessments and proposals, including a management plan, before they can be granted a commercial licence.
They must adhere to Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, which promotes ecologically sustainable use of Australia’s natural resources.
But an independent review in 2021, showed that the EPBC Act failed to accomplish its aims.
“We simply don’t have the physical assets we need to transition to wind and solar power alone.”Tamara Al-Hashimi
Al-Hashimi says investment is missing.
“Australia’s marine environment is both unique and complex, so when it comes to offshore wind in particular, the technical studies required to understand both yield and environmental impact need to be long-term,” she says.
“They require people with very specific skills – geotechnical, MetOcean, marine ecology. There are only so many people with that kind of expertise in the local market right now, so it’s important that Australia invests in developing local expertise.”
While previous research has shown offshore wind farms can impact marine life in a negative way, they can also provide habitat for some marine species, especially if the wind farms have artificial reefs included within their foundations.
“There are studies from international markets about the potential positive and negative impacts of offshore wind development, but what’s important is that we test these in relation to Australia’s own environments, species, and coastal processes,” says Al-Hashimi.
“A lot of the areas that are being looked at for offshore wind development haven’t been studied in detail before, so we need to design and implement rigorous, long-term baseline surveys to understand which species are present and when.
“It’s only through this work that we can understand how to build offshore wind farms with the least possible impact, and drive innovation in terms of asset design – how can we create environmental value from offshore wind infrastructure?”
Although Australia is behind in enacting marine spatial planning policies and regulations for their offshore wind sectors (the government and regulatory bodies are currently creating them), we can learn from countries that already have some in place.
The European Union has 22 coastal member states which have adopted marine spatial planning processes, enabling it to reach 28.4 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity while safeguarding the environment.
“A lot of the areas that are being looked at for offshore wind development haven’t been studied in detail before, so we need to design and implement rigorous, long-term baseline surveys to understand which species are present and when.”
As part of marine spatial planning, the Australian Government needs to ensure that offshore windfarms are integrated with the other ways we use our ocean, including fishing and the preservation of traditional Sea Country practices.
“Balancing different values and interests is always a challenge, but understanding how these interests and values intersect is a vital first step in the process,” says Al-Hashimi.
“Australia is still evolving its processes for offshore wind licencing and approvals, and we don’t have any offshore wind farms that have gone all the way through the consenting process, yet.
“A key mechanism for testing out how offshore wind farms fit with other values and interests is via the new declared areas process. A draft marine area is declared by the federal government for offshore wind, and there is then a consultation process where stakeholders can have their say.”
Consultation around draft declared area boundaries will affect where and how much development takes place off our coastlines, but it’s just one step in the process. Before being finalised, declared areas can be amended to better balance different interests and protect existing values–environmental, cultural, and commercial. The studies undertaken by developers within declared areas will further narrow down where offshore wind farms are best positioned from feasibility, commercial, environmental, social and cultural perspectives.
It is possible to make Australia a leader in ecologically sustainable development through effective offshore wind regulation and collaboration on baseline surveys.
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The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation's Flourishing Oceans initiative.